The Thomas Reese Affair

By John Mallon

A Media Analysis

Inside the Vatican, June 2005

An uproar has ensued in the left-wing Catholic press in the United States over the allegedly forced resignation of Jesuit Father Thomas Reese from America magazine. A repeated refrain was that Reese always told both sides of the story (i.e. the Church’s position and the anti-Church position). And that may be true. But the important question is, which side did the editorial board favor? 

For example, in the issue of November 18, 1995, which to be fair, was, I believe, before Father Reese’s tenure, an article appeared entitled “How America Went Gay” by a Dr. Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist, who treats men of same-sex attractions, and author of the book Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far (Adam Hargrave Books, Phoenix, AZ, 1-800-931-4166). 

Dr. Socarides, at least at the time, was a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist. Nevertheless, his article defended the Catholic position on homosexuality.


The curious thing was that there was a note above Dr. Socarides’ article that said the following: “Editor’s Note: Occasionally America devotes space to strongly alternative points of view regarding controversial subjects. The following article is a reaction to the article ‘Confessions of a Pastoralist,’ by David Toolan, SJ, which appeared in our issue of Sept. 23, 1995.” (Emphasis added) 

Why is it that America, a Catholic magazine, regards an article defending the Catholic teaching on homosexuality as “strongly alternative”? This would seem to imply that the editorial position of America is “strongly alternative” to that of the Catholic view. 

A recurring refrain among the outraged editors of leftist Catholic journals in the United States is what a damper Reese’s ouster will put upon all “thinking Catholics.” The implication is that if you accept the authority of the Magisterium you are an unthinking, unwashed peasant who is an embarrassment to the Catholic Church – at least the “American” Catholic Church. 

And this perhaps is what is most offensive about theological dissent: the inherent snobbery of it all. The smug attitude of superiority that reeks throughout the entire Culture of Dissent. The constant sniffing at the Chair of Peter as the source of Christ’s authority on earth – which ultimately adds up to unbelief. 

Christ gave Peter the Keys or He didn’t. He sent the Holy Spirit to protect the Magisterium from errors in faith and morals or He didn’t. 

The Magisterium has definitively closed the book on the dissenters’ pet causes, but they simply won’t accept it. They mistakenly believe that truth is arrived at via dialogue instead of Revelation and Magisterial discernment. The dialogue was officially closed on contraception by Humanae Vitae, on women’s “ordination” by Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and there never was nor should there have been a dialogue on abortion, which is covered by the Fifth Commandment. 

So, what did happen to Father Reese? 

A Jesuit told me of a rumor circulating at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University, that Father Reese, as the story goes, was “furious” at the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy and quit in a huff, but then quickly thought better of it but it was too late. His superiors apparently called his bluff and accepted his resignation and would not be moved. 

One hopes a grown man, much less a Jesuit priest, would not behave that way, and it is just a rumor. 

However, Tom Roberts and John Allen, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, seem to lend some credence to this story albeit in a more genteel manner. 

They reported: “Some confusion over whether Reese was ousted or voluntarily left occurred when Catholic News Service reported that Jesuit Fr. Jose M. de Vera, spokesman for the order in Rome, said Reese had decided to resign after discussing the situation with his superiors and following Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope. 

“According to a number of Jesuits close to the situation, Reese, aware of the discussions between the Jesuits and the congregation, indeed decided to resign when Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. He reportedly told [Jesuit Superior General Father Peter-Hans] Kolvenbach and his superiors in the United States of his intent. However, when he informed the staff at America, the other editors ‘were unanimously and adamantly against it,’ according to one source. They asked Reese to reconsider or at least to ‘take a few months off and rest and then see how the new papacy developed.’

“Reese, following that advice, called Fr. Brad Schaeffer, Jesuit conference president. Schaeffer visited Reese the next day and, according to a source knowledgeable about the conversation, ‘told him that Kolvenbach had received a letter from CDF in mid-March demanding his resignation’ and that Kolvenbach ‘had concluded that fighting it would do no good.’ No one who spoke to NCR was able to give the precise language of the letter and NCR was unable to obtain a copy. 

“Whatever the chronology, it is beyond dispute that Reese resigned because of Vatican pressure.” (NCR May 13) 

Further, a May 16 op-ed column in the Boston Globe also seems to support some aspects of the tale. Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, wrote in the Globe, “The leadership of the Society of Jesus decided that the Rev. Thomas Reese should be replaced as editor of America magazine. Reese, who was editor for seven years, said he agreed with the decision, but apparently he later changed his mind.” 

The lack of clarity on what exactly transpired did not stop the US Catholic press from going to red alert. 

Tom Roberts in an NCR editorial called Reese’s alleged ouster “tragic.” In an NCR story, Meinrad Scher- er-Emunds, executive editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, published by the Claretians, called it “a sad, disappointing and to some degree shocking development.”

An editorial in Commonweal stated, “American Catholics, including most regular churchgoers, get their news about the Church from the secular media, not from Church spokespersons or official pronouncements. Most Catholics read about papal encyclicals in the papers; they don’t read encyclicals.” 

This raises an interesting point. Wouldn’t it be logical for Catholic publications to encourage people to read encyclicals? 

Commonweal continues: “It therefore behooves the hierarchy, if it wants to communicate with the faithful (or re-evangelize them), to act in a way that does not lend credence to the still-widespread impression that the Catholic Church is a backward-looking, essentially authoritarian institution run by men who are afraid of open debate and intellectual inquiry. It is safe to say that the Vatican’s shocking dismissal of Rev. Thomas Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America has left precisely such an impression with millions of Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.” 

More clichés. It is certainly true that the mainstream media depicts the Church in this way. But the argument can certainly be made that the stereotype of the Church cited here is frequently given credence in the pages of the liberal Catholic press, by portraying the Magisterial position as on the same footing, if not a lower, less credible position, as dissident positions feeding the secular media clichés about the Church. 

Some are accusing America’s critics of demanding that they present views opposing Church positions as “straw men” to be knocked down, as the NCR editorial of May 10 said, “Those same proponents of self-censorship suggest that Catholic publishing, while permitted to describe opposing arguments, should, in effect, never take them seriously. They may be represented in a publication only for the purpose of knocking them down in defense of Church teaching.” But all too often it appears in these publications that Church positions are the “straw man” and the secular, dissident positions the credible ones. 

For example, Heidi Schlumpf, managing editor at U.S. Catholic, told The Boston Globe she got into trouble with the CDF for running a story about women who wanted to be priests. I recall the article, which portrayed the women as misunderstood oppressed prophets who would one day be vindicated after the repressive hierarchy someday sees the light. Schlumpf said she settled the matter by publishing an article in a later issue explaining the Church’s position on ordaining women. 

One might ask, why not simply run the explanation without the other article which was obviously antagonis- tic to the Church? Or an article on the phenomenon of people who believe God is calling them to a closed door? One might say these women’s voices deserve to be heard, but their story would be welcomed with open arms by The New York Times or The Boston Globe. Why should Catholic publications do their work for them? 

The issue here is not open debate or even thoughtful criticism, but defiance. 

Rev. Pat McCloskey, the editor of St. Anthony Messenger, a Franciscan publication, makes a more telling
point. He told the NCR, “It would be hard for any Catholic editor not to say, ‘Well, if this happened to America magazine, perhaps it could happen to others. I’m afraid that a move like this one will cause more and more Catholic thinkers to say that they want to write for publications that are not identified as Catholic and to teach at schools that are not identified as Catholic, because there is more freedom there.” 

These are sad but telling words from a priest. Catholics believe – or should believe – that the fullness of freedom is found in Christ. Perhaps those Catholic journalists feeling “unfree” would do well to go over to secular publications where their view of the Church would be quite welcome – and they would make more money. The image of dissident Catholics as crusading windmill-tippers is getting tiresome.


The Commonweal editorial of May 10 unwittingly points out another irony: “Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, which did so much to enfranchise lay Catholics and to encourage their engagement with the great intellectual resources of the Church, it is inexcusable that the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] would censor a magazine as respectful and responsive to the Church’s tradition as America. At a time when elites are as polarized as they are now in the American Church, Reese’s dismissal will embolden those eager to purge ‘dissenters,’ while making it nearly impossible for a reasoned critique of the agenda of Church reformers to be heard by those who need most to hear.” 

Again we see the theme of the dissident press as self-proclaimed prophet being ignored by the Pharisees. proclaimed prophet being ignored by the Pharisees. 

Not surprisingly, the most rational note in the debate came from Father Neuhaus in a comment in his Globe op-ed: “Again, intellectual integrity requires honestly engaging opposing arguments. It does not require providing a platform for opposing arguments. I dare say that an editor working for Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, or the National Rifle Association who regularly turned a publication into a platform for those opposed to the mission of the organization would soon be looking for another job.” 

The irony is that of all the publications angry over the Reese dismissal, all but two, the NCR and Commonweal, are run by religious orders, not laity. 

Meanwhile, the “enfranchised laity” are responsible for numerous publications who see it as their mission to support, explain, advocate and educate on authentic Church teachings: to name a few, Catholic World Report, Crisis, This Rock, Envoy, Canticle, The Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, San Diego News Notes, The Wanderer, and, of course, Inside the Vatican. These publications operate at great personal sacrifice to those involved and run on very tight budgets, with their mission to support the mission and teachings of the Church. Their operating expenses, food and shelter are not paid for by the Church. 

Perhaps the Vatican should take note of this imbalance, that lay-run self-supporting journals tend to support the Church while those run by religious orders tend to favor dissent and are the first to denounce being “repressed” when their positions are called into question. A number of people working for these faithful lay publications are refugees from the diocesan Catholic press after having been forced out of their jobs by hostile dissident clergy because the journalists were “too Catholic.” By no means extremists or zealots, they were run off by clergy who were threatened by a Catholic diocesan editor with an orthodox “bias” when they wanted dissent given an equal (or superior) footing. 

Unlike Father Reese, these journalists did not have a religious house to return to, to discuss their future with their superior. No, they were stuck with bills to pay, mortgages to be met, families that might have to be moved across the country and so forth. 

In this, there is a note of hypocrisy in the “outrage” being voiced in the dissident Catholic press over the Reese affair. Father Reese’s story is not tragic. He will be well cared for by his religious order. 

But when did the dissident Catholic press ever utter a word on these same principles of “dialogue,” “open debate” and “justice” regarding Catholic journalists forced out, not by the Vatican, but by diocesan officials for being faithful to the Church? 

Mallon is former editor of Oklahoma City’s diocesan bi-weekly, the Sooner Catholic. ● 

The Thomas Reese Affair